Humanities, January/February 2001, Volume 22/Number 1
A composer, a novelist, a preacher, a writer of children's books--these are some of the faces of the 2000 National Humanities Medalists. What they have in common is a commitment to the public good through the humanities. At a December ceremony in Washington, D.C., twelve outstanding Americans were honored by President Clinton. Between them, the medalists have a Nobel prize, eight Emmys, twenty-six Grammys, and one Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters. Four writers, three historians, a television producer, a composer, a minister, an administrator, and a teacher--their careers are examples of how the humanities are woven into American life. Each has used his or her interest in the humanities to make significant contributions to the nation. One honoree brought his religious training to the Civil Rights Movement when he escorted nine African American students through angry mobs at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Another is an art historian whose decades of art collecting and curating reflect the changing canon of American art. There is a teacher who developed an intensive academic curriculum for Americans in poverty; and a writer who started a prize for literature that recognizes outstanding literary quality as a tool for social change. Although they have chosen different roads, the work of these twelve people intersect again and again near the center of our culture, showing us how our lives can be enriched by the humanities.
The following individuals received a 2000 National Humanities Medal:
- Robert Bellah
- Will Davis Campbell
- Judy Crichton
- David C. Driskell
- Ernest J. Gaines
- Herman T. Guerrero
- Quincy Jones
- Barbara Kingsolver
- Toni Morrison
- Edward S. Morgan
- Earl Shorris
- Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
Robert Bellah has a reputation for posing tough questions and refusing to accept easy answers. By questioning how Americans define moral living, he has expanded the definition of both sociology and the sociologist. Commenting on his book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Bellah says, "We found that though Americans say they value community, they don't want to be held responsible for it." Habits of the Heart compares how Americans believe they ought to live with how they actually conduct their lives. The book, written with NEH support, is based on interviews with middle-class Americans.
"Individualism became a focus in Habits because we chose Alexis de Tocqueville as our framework. Where are we 150 years later? Is his analysis still relevant?" Bellah asks. "We found that yes, indeed, his work was still very relevant. De Tocqueville warned that the emphasis on individualism running through American life would lead to people withdrawing into isolated, contained groups. This has turned out to be true." Bellah and his co-authors extended their study of American character and the country's social institutions in The Good Society.
A practicing Christian, Bellah has also written widely on the sociology of religion in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial, and Varieties of Civil Religion.
"It's ironic that I turned out to be so focused on the United States. This was not my original intent," Bellah says. He became interested in Eastern religion while an undergraduate, and went on to complete a Ph.D. in sociology and Far Eastern languages at Harvard in 1955. Bellah continues to be active in Japanese studies, but he became known for his analysis and critique of American life.
Like many college students of his time, Bellah was attracted to Marxism as an answer to society's ills. This early interest created problems for him during the McCarthy years, when he refused to sign an anti-Communist statement that was a prerequisite to teaching at Harvard. He took a position at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University instead. In 1957, he returned to Harvard, where he taught for ten years before joining the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. Bellah retired from teaching in 1997 and is Elliot Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Berkeley.
At the age of seventy-three, Bellah continues to lecture on college campuses and to church groups, addressing issues of individualism in American society. He is currently writing a book that traces the evolution of religion from the Paleolithic period to the present.
Will Davis Campbell is a civil rights activist who talks with members of the Ku Klux Klan. He is a preacher who does not attend church or belong to any denomination. He is a writer who explores the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. The contradictory threads that run through his life are explained by one of his guiding principles: understanding the difference between belief and faith. "Belief is passive," he says. "Faith is active."
Campbell grew up in rural Mississippi. He was ordained in the Baptist church at the age of seventeen and went on to Yale Divinity School. He spent two years as minister to a congregation--long enough to convince him that his place was not in the institutionalized church. "Either the steeples weren't ready for me or I wasn't ready for the steeples," he says. At the University of Mississippi he was appointed the director of religious life, but he resigned in 1956 rather than disavow his support for the budding Civil Rights Movement.
For the next decade, Campbell traveled throughout the South, working for the National Council of Churches as "trouble shooter on race relations" and later, as director of the Committee of Southern Churchmen. He helped escort nine African American students through mobs opposed to the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was the only white minister asked by Martin Luther King Jr. to attend the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He bailed demonstrators out of jail during sit-ins and participated in the Birmingham campaign.
"If it hits you right, the pressure from a fire hose can break your back," Campbell recalls of the violent response protesters met with in Birmingham. "I remember seeing adults and children hit and rolling along the sidewalk like pebbles at high tide. The decision was made to permit young children to demonstrate, and it was very controversial. Seeing those children alerted the nation and the world to what was happening, that this was a real threat to any claim of our being a democratic country."
Today Campbell lives outside Nashville, where he farms and writes. The author of sixteen books, he has received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union and state awards in both the arts and humanities from the Governor of Tennessee. His memoir Brother to a Dragonfly, won a National Book Award nomination and was named one of Time magazine's ten most notable works of nonfiction of the 1970s. Campbell is the subject of a PBS documentary titled God's Will, which aired in 2000.
A voice of conscience that challenged church leaders to join the fight against racism in the early sixties, Campbell has been described by Jimmy Carter as "a deeply religious man." In his writing and his preaching, he has continued to push for the breaking down of barriers in American society.
"History is filled with magnificent stories," says television producer Judy Crichton. "Some of the most exciting stories anyone has ever read are in history books."
She has proved her point in more than a hundred films over the years, from Andrew Carnegie: The Richest Man in the World, to The Donner Party, and Lindbergh. As the founding producer of the PBS series The American Experience from 1987 to 1996, Crichton gave new shape to the documentary by combining visual elements with a dose of historical content, worked out in a collaboration between filmmakers and scholars. She and The American Experience won The George Foster Peabody Award four times, The Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award twice, and the Emmy seven times.
Crichton started her career as a clerk for a newspaper at age sixteen. She moved to television and worked on game shows, and in 1974 became the first woman writer and producer for CBS Reports. In 1981 she became a producer and writer for ABC's Closeup documentary unit.
Crichton remembers the standards of those early days. As she tells it, when she first began working for CBS Reports, she undertook a story only to find it "too flimsy." She approached the executive producer with apprehension and told him she thought the story should be dropped. Without blinking an eye, he agreed, "You are being paid to drop stories, to lie on the couch, and to read and learn." Later, in public television at WGBS, she would tell her staff the same thing: "You are paid to study."
Crichton laments the fact that this attitude no longer prevails in commercial television. She told NEH Chairman William R. Ferris, "Among the things I am most proud of is working on projects that had enough time to achieve a piece of work in a thoughtful way. Television underwritten by the Endowment sets an academic standard that allows us to reach for a level of work not possible in the commercial world, especially in television."
Crichton left The American Experience in the mid-nineties, but continues to serve as executive consultant on the series. Most recently she acted as executive director of the NEH-funded documentary New York.
"I am connecting my life to someone else's life," says art collector David C. Driskell, "someone who had a vision about another time, or someone who had different experiences, who wanted to give a view of a person's mood, or the beauty of landscape."
As an educator and art collector, Driskell respects the significance of the past. "The humanities for me are the basis for the whole learning experience. They inform us so much about the past."
Recently retired, Driskell was a teacher and curator at the University of Maryland for more than twenty years. He has lectured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other museums, and has curated numerous exhibitions. He puts his expertise to personal use as well. Since college, he has devoted himself to preserving cultural traditions by collecting African American art and artifacts dating from the era of slave ships to modern times.
By buying and preserving pieces outside what he calls the "quality canon," Driskell has helped change art collecting trends. In recent years, museums have become more inclusive in their selection of art, in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity. Ever the activist, Driskell calls for a deeper revision of artistic standards and a diversification of the canon. He praises private collectors like Bill and Camille Cosby for gathering a broad range of American art. Their collection is showcased in the book The Other Side of Color, which Driskell put together. It will be released in March 2001.
Driskell's own collection of paintings, lithographs, drawings, and sculptures span almost four hundred years. The art in his collection includes that of nineteenth-century painters Robert Scott Duncanson and Henry O. Tanner, sculptor and social activist Augusta Savage, and colorist Alma Thomas. The collection is currently on display in the touring exhibition "Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection." The show presents artwork, archival photographs, rare books, and film, and demonstrates his inclusive philosophy towards art. Though its heart is African American art, it incorporates African, European, and Asian pieces--revealing the eye of a collector who is as moved by beauty on its own terms as by items of specific cultural significance.
Educated at Howard and Catholic Universities and the recipient of nine honorary doctoral degrees in art, Driskell has studied African and African American art around the globe. A sampling of the schools at which he has taught includes Bowdoin College, Fisk University, and Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. He was asked by President and Mrs. Clinton to choose artwork for the White House. For decades, he has published books and essays on subjects ranging from colonial art to Klee and Kandinsky, and from aesthetics to printmaking.
The Humanities Medal joins his Distinguished Alumni Awards in Art, three Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, and other honors. Driskell is currently traveling with the Narratives collection and also as a visiting lecturer. He quips, "I'm busier now that I'm retired than I ever was before."
Drawing on the images, cadences, and sentiments of his youth, Ernest J. Gaines writes novels that evoke the particulars and the feel of small-town southern Louisiana in the early part of the twentieth entury. He is renowned for his tales about Bayonne, Louisiana, based on Pointe Coupee Parish, where he spent his childhood and early adolescence. "The humanities are all about criticizing man, but at the same time you say what is good in him. It's like a mirror," says Gaines. "The artist tries to show the truth. It's not always a beautiful picture. The humanities are about saying, what can we do to improve it?"
Though his works are based on historical fact, and sometimes specific circumstances like the crime that serves as the centerpiece of the book A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines does not associate himself with historians. He says, "History is interpreted by the winners." Pointing out that historians often owe their mindset to preexisting schools of political thought, he adds, "An artist does not owe anyone anything, if he is honest. He's got to do his work as best he can."
When researching The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines aimed to create an accurate historical environment for the character of a centenarian ex-slave. He spoke with left-wing and right-wing historians, with Confederacy and Union experts, and put it all in the mouth of Miss Jane Pittman, "an intelligent character." It is Gaines's ability to sift through contrasting viewpoints that gives Miss Pittman her credibility, as much as the fact that her character is based on the aunt who raised Gaines, Augusteen Jefferson.
Louisiana has changed since Gaines first left it at age fifteen. The crops have changed and machinery has replaced workers who used to do everything by hand. Many of Gaines's friends have died or moved on. The little church that served as his school still stands, but the other changes are significant. Gaines's work captures the essence of a time that has all but disappeared. His most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying, which takes place in the 1940s, depicts the struggle of an educated black man whose highest achievement is limited to being a schoolteacher. "Today he could be an attorney, or a doctor," Gaines notes.
Gaines has bought property where he grew up, on the river where he and his ancestors were baptized. "When I left, I could not have come through the front door of this university. I would have had to come in the back door with a mop and bucket." Now there are thousands of black students at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where he has been author- in-residence since 1983. He spends his time traveling to other schools, doing research, and planning his next novel.
Although he set his stories in Louisiana, Gaines wrote them in San Francisco. He says, "I needed that distance in order to write." During his time in California he frequently traveled back to Louisiana to reconnect to the land and the people there. "I had to be part of them to write about them in a small cold room in San Francisco."
Herman T. Guerrero's nickname, "Jun Pan," tells a piece of his family history and a small piece of the history of the Northern Mariana Islands as well. He inherited the name from his father, who was interned in the islands by the Americans at the beginning of World War II. His father was pressed into service as a baker for the native prisoners at Camp Susupe; he proved so successful that the military asked him to stay on as the islands' civilian baker after the war. He was called Pan, or "Bread," and his son proudly bears the name of Jun Pan, "Bread Junior."
Guerrero is working to reclaim the islands' colonial history and the legacy of the native Chamorro people, who were nearly wiped out by Spanish colonists in the seventeenth century. He serves on the board of directors of several companies, including his family bakery, and has worked on the CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) Humanities Council since 1992.
One of his and the council's efforts is the Genealogy Project, which is being conducted with the help of the University of Guam's Micronesian Area Research Center. Guerrero sees "a tremendous growth in native islanders' interests in tracing their ancestral roots."
He also helped create "Spain in the Marianas: First Contact and Aftermath" with the Northern Mariana Islands Museum of History, as well as displays on linguistics, religion, and cross-culturalism.
In the course of four hundred years, the islands passed from Spanish to German to Japanese rule, becoming an U.S. territory in 1947. In 1978 they became a Commonwealth, and in 1985 islanders were granted partial U.S. citizenship. Over the same stretch of time, the islands moved from the era of galleon trade to the nuclear age.
Guerrero's personal history reflects some of the complexity of the islands. He went to high school in Saipan and Guam, received a B.A. in Sociology from St. John's University in Minnesota, and did graduate work at the University of South Florida. He has served as a Representative in the Northern Marianas Commonwealth Legislature, and has worked in the CNMI Office of the Governor and in the Department of Education.
In all of his projects, Guerrero seeks social cohesiveness by documenting the past and promoting discussion for a population that has culture, language, and generation gaps left from its colonial past. An exhibition on the islands' Japanese era is on display at the CNMI Museum until July 2001, and Guerrero is working with the Diocese of Chalan Kanoa to obtain the oldest records of the Chamorran people. He is also promoting a museum exhibition on the U.S. portion of the islands' administrative history.
As he sees it, "The humanities and humanities education allows the indigenous people of the Northern Mariana Islands Archipelago a rediscovery and an affirmation of their native identity. It also allows them the wherewithal to tackle the modern day challenges that they face as they continue to forge their way within the political, economic, and social spheres of an increasingly global community."
Whether it's swing, jazz and the blues, or rap and hip-hop, Quincy Jones has brought a distinctly American sound to every corner of the globe. "The hybrid music that has come from African Americans has become the music of every young person on the planet," he says. "It's the Esperanto of youth all over the world."
For fifty years, Jones has arranged music, performed as a jazz trumpeter, and written film scores. He has produced records, films, and television programs, and founded magazines. But above all, he is a champion for African American artists and a voice for humanitarian causes.
Born in Chicago in 1933, Jones discovered music when he moved to Bremerton, Washington. At the age of twelve, he began playing in a band with Ray Charles, who was his neighbor and just a few years older. During World War II, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington toured Seattle, and Jones routinely sneaked into theaters by pretending to be a member of the band. "In the 1940s, there were no black people in Bremerton, Washington," he explains. "It was very hard to find your identity. When I saw all the musicians come through town with their dignity and pride, I said, 'That's what I want to be like.' Love for music pulled me under like quicksand and saved me from getting into a lot of trouble."
Jones studied music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston until Lionel Hampton invited him to join his band as a trumpeter, arranger, and pianist. By the mid 50s, Jones was arranging and recording for a number of artists, including Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Jones was appointed vice-president at Mercury Records in 1961, the first African American executive of a major record company.
With his film score for Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, Jones broke into another field that had been closed to African Americans. He went on to write thirty-three motion picture scores and co-produce the film version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Although film distributors told him that black stories didn't sell, Jones was determined. "It became an obsession with us," he says. "Everything starts with a story or a song. Nothing else is important. Once you have a great story, you look for the elements you need to make a piece of art. I knew that The Color Purple was a great story."
The recipient of twenty-six Grammy Awards and an Emmy, Jones is perhaps best known for producing Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and "We Are the World," which he produced and conducted. Jones says that he continues to be fascinated by the universal appeal of African American music. "The pain of African Americans--who lost their homes, families, freedom, everything--has to go someplace. The pain went to the bottom of their souls and came out as music. The blues is pain translated to joy."
Jones combines his advocacy for American music with working for social causes. In the 1970s, he was a founding member of Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH. In 1999, he produced the NetAid concerts in New York, London, and Geneva to launch a worldwide effort to fight poverty through Netaid.org. Through his own foundation, Listen Up, Jones has taken youth from South Central Los Angeles to South Africa to build houses.
As a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Jones has lobbied to keep music programs in the public schools--particularly the study of popular music. "Jazz is America's classical music," he says. "Someday we will recognize this."
From the fields of Kentucky to the jungles of the Congo, the novels of Barbara Kingsolver's novels take her readers to new geographic and psychological terrains. The critically acclaimed author of The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, Pigs in Heaven, and The Poisonwood Bible sees literature as a way of spreading awareness about the injustices and inequalities of the world--but always within the context of a good story, and always expressed with Kingsolver's characteristically rich, image-filled language, poignancy, and humor.
"Literature is a wonderful tool for social change and to wake people up to their responsibility," she says. "The most important thing to me is to integrate what I believe in most passionately with what I do for a living-- in my novels, essays, the Bellwether Prize--all are ways I can use my work to make the world a better place."
The 1998 Poisonwood Bible, for example, is the story of a missionary, his wife, and four daughters caught in the turmoil of the Belgian Congo in 1959. On one level it is the story of the dissolution of a family, while on another it deals head-on with themes of colonialism, religion, and racism.
Kingsolver's belief in the power of literature to bring about change led her to establish the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded biannually for a first novel that represents outstanding literary quality and a commitment to serious fiction as a tool for social change. "It's always frustrating that the literary criticism industry in this country does not value literature for social change as it does in other countries," says Kingsolver. "Literary critics are suspicious of politics. When I started earning more than I needed for my family I wanted to establish an award to fly in the face of this snobbery."
With the prize comes a guarantee of publication. The first Bellwether Prize was awarded to Donna M. Gershten of Denver, Colorado, for her novel Kissing the Virgin's Mouth.
Kingsolver has always been a storyteller. As a child growing up in eastern Kentucky, she would beg her mother to let her tell the bedtime stories. She graduated with a degree in biology from DePauw University in Indiana and went on to graduate studies in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. While in Tucson, she took creative writing courses, which eventually led to a career in journalism and then to fiction writing. Her nonfiction work is collected in High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. Kingsolver's newest novel is Prodigal Summer.
Toni Morrison does not choose easy subjects for her novels. She wrote Beloved after hearing the account of an escaped slave who had killed her child to prevent the child from spending life in bondage. In Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead sets out to recover a financial fortune, discovering instead the legacy of his ancestors' suffering and flight to freedom. The Bluest Eye depicts a black adolescent impregnated by her father, who wishes fiercely to become beautiful by her eyes turning blue.
"The impulse to write fiction is a question in my mind, a 'what if,'" Morrison explains. "Take away the generalizations to see what it is really like, not just in political terms. Like to be an abused child, or a slave. Not, 'what does it mean?' But, 'what does it feel like?'" Known for the depth of allegory and literary allusion in her novels, Morrison strives to write novels that are both accessible and beautiful. "The trick is not writing for a limited audience. The really hard thing is to write for people who are fastidious in their taste and for people who are not."
Morrison also writes and edits nonfiction on black history and literature, the writing process, and social issues. At times she is inspired by news stories such as Anita Hill's testimony or the O.J. Simpson trial--especially when they touch on issues of power, race, and gender. Her motivation for editing a collection of essays on the Clarence Thomas hearings was born of dissatisfaction. "I was exhausted with shallow, sound-bite television and journalism, with the narrative designed for ratings as opposed to intelligent debate," she says.
Born in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison attended Howard University as an undergraduate and received a master's degree from Cornell University. She taught introductory English at Texas Southern University and joined a small writer's group, where she wrote the story that would become The Bluest Eye. She worked as an editor at Random House for nearly twenty years before becoming a visiting lecturer at Yale University. Morrison is now the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University.
A novelist, essayist, playwright, and the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison is dedicated to her craft as a writer. "I don't mark it by prizes," she says. "The point is to have a career, to write because you're absolutely mesmerized by the subject, in a way that serves the subject."
Morrison believes that education should enrich people on more than one level. "My professional life has always centered on humanities scholarship," she says. "In languages and in literature you have the consequence of what science and technology can do in the world of art and its attendant disciplines." Throughout Morrison's career, literature has been a constant: "All my life I have been teaching books, writing books, or reading books."
"Curiosity is the principal motivator of all important work," says historian Edmund S. Morgan.
Whether he is overturning common wisdom about the American Revolution or debunking the myth of "the American people," Morgan is quick to wade into controversy.
"There is no way there's such a thing as the American people expressing a wish," Morgan says. "Wishes must be expressed through representatives who have their own views. But we need the fiction of the 'American people' as an entity with a will and expressed views. Our American government is based on this fiction."
In his book, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, Morgan says the popular control of government is largely a fictional concept, inherited from the notion of the divine right of kings. "No society is governed by the many," he says. "All societies are governed only by the few, whether the government is a monarchy or a democracy." But it is a concept that has worked well over the centuries and the continued belief in it, he asserts, is essential to our system of government.
The author and editor of eighteen books, Morgan has written on the Puritans and the intellectual foundations of early American life. Still active in the field at the age of eighty-four, Morgan says, "The more familiar you become with a subject, the more you realize you don't know, so there's a reason to go on."
Morgan taught at the University of Chicago and Brown University before joining the faculty at Yale in 1955. He is the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale. "I made a point of always teaching undergraduates because they are not a captive audience," Morgan says. "If you teach undergrads, you have to make history intelligible to people who are not specialists in your field and that's good for you as a scholar. I always tried out my research ideas first in the classroom to get feedback from people who didn't have to listen to me if I didn't make it interesting." Morgan retired in 1986.
In such books as Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea and American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, Morgan explores the contradictions surrounding the Puritans of New England and the slave owners of the South. "How do you account for the fact that the principal authors of the Constitution and general proponents of liberty in American life were slave owners?" Morgan asks. "These people grew up with slavery. Jefferson and others were troubled by this, but they were not willing to sacrifice their inheritance to do something about it. I suppose we have to say simply that they were human. Ultimately you can't reconcile this paradox. There are many things in human society you can't reconcile."
Morgan is currently working with the Founding Fathers Project on a biography of Benjamin Franklin to accompany the CD-ROM edition of Franklin's papers.
"Political history was the major field of interest when I began my studies. Today the focus is on social history, but this will change, too," Morgan says. "In the end history can't get too far from questions of power, who has power and how they wield it."
Writer Earl Shorris believes that understanding the words of Socrates and Plato helps the poor and uneducated more than learning the skills of a technical job. And he is one of those rare people who puts beliefs into action. In 1995 Shorris created a program of study known as the Clemente Course to bring the humanities to residents of impoverished inner-city neighborhoods.
"The humanities have great appeal to give people a sense of self, to see the world and themselves differently in the Greek sense of reflective thinking, of autonomy," he says. "People who know the humanities become good citizens, become active, not acted upon."
The Clemente Course is named after the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in lower Manhattan, where the first classes were held. Shorris got the idea for the course while researching his book on poverty, New American Blues: A Journey to Democracy, which led him to travel the country and visit some of its poorest areas. On a visit to a women's prison, Shorris met an inmate named Viniece Walker, who told him the poor needed "a moral alternative to the street." Her words struck a chord with Shorris. He set about creating an academic course of study in the humanities that would give the poor skills to deal more effectively with society at large.
The only requirements for the course are that students be between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, have a household income of less than 150 percent of the poverty level, be able to read a tabloid newspaper, and show an intent to finish the course. With the help of his wife, Sylvia, and some friends, the Clemente Course was born. After the first year when he taught classes in American history and political philosophy, Shorris turned over administration of the program to Bard College.
Five years later, the courses are thriving and have expanded to fourteen courses around the country. Sixty percent of Clemente graduates go on to college, and currently five have full scholarships to Bard. In addition to the Bard program there are several variants of the course, including programs in Native American humanities.
Shorris is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and a frequent commentator on National Public Radio. He was educated at the University of Chicago, which he entered as a scholarship student at the age of thirteen. He is the author of several novels and nonfiction books. A sequel to New American Blues has just been published, entitled Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities.
For thirty years Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve has written children's books with the intention of dispelling stereotypes and negative images of Native Americans. She has brought the richness of Native American culture and heritage to thousands of children.
Sneve began by thinking of her own children and what they were learning about their heritage. "There were so many inaccuracies and stereotypes in what my children were reading," she says. She recalls how her young son, anticipating a Native American uncle's visit from the Pine Ridge Reservation, lined up his friends on the driveway expecting to see an Indian chief. Her son was obviously disappointed when Sneve's uncle arrived in everyday street clothes. "I realized these stereotypes were affecting my own family," Sneve says.
So she set about making a change. Her first book, Jimmy Yellow Hawk, was published in 1972 and was followed by some twenty works of fiction and nonfiction. Sneve's books for children and adults that focus on Native American culture and heritage include High Elk's Treasure, The Chichi Hoohoo Bogeyman, and The Trickster and the Troll, an imaginative combination of Lakota and Norwegian folklore. Completing the Circle combines history, autobiography, and legend to tell the story of several generations of women in Sneve's family.
"I write from my own experience and about Native Americans I've known all my life." she says. "The characters are believable children who live on modern-day reservations. In my nonfiction I strive for accuracy and try to bring them up to contemporary times--not about people hunting buffaloes!" Sneve is the daughter of an Episcopal priest and a Lakota Sioux mother. She grew up on the Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota and was an English teacher and counselor in Rapid City public schools and at the Flandreau Indian School for forty years.
As a girl, Sneve says, she was a "big reader." In one rectory her family lived in, she came upon a 1912 set of The Book of Knowledge, an encyclopedia series that included selections of classic mythology and literature.
"Those books influenced me more than anything," she says. "They also helped me realize I could write. I've been interested in history and literature my whole life--even before I knew it was called the humanities. I hope my work with children will show them the importance it has in their lives as well."
Sneve's most recent book is Grandpa Was a Cowboy and an Indian, a collection of short stories.